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Maritime architect driven to build 1,000-foot-long cruise ship

William Francis Gibbs was the Philadelphia-born, self-taught maritime architect of the S.S. United States. As a child, his doodlings of giant cruise ships often frustrated his father.

“My great-grandparents had taken my grandfather (Gibbs) to watch the launch of the ‘St. Louis,’ and he was apparently hooked,” says his granddaughter, Susan Gibbs, who resides with her family in Washington, D.C.

“It became his ‘Harry Potter.’ When the family summered at Spring Lake, N.J., he would look forward to sitting and sketching the steamships as they would go buy. It was the beginnings of his obsession.”

But his father was not impressed.

Gibbs enrolled at Harvard to study science and engineering and then, in accordance with his father’s wishes, attended the Columbia Law School, earning a bachelor’s degree in law and a master’s degree in arts.

He practiced law briefly before he and his brother, Frederic, moved into the business of shipbuilding in 1915. By the end of his career, Gibbs was hailed as a genius, and he was credited with the design or construction of more than 6,000 vessels.

But the S.S. United States was his Sistine Chapel. It featured state-of-the-art advancements in engine power and fire safety, and was bigger, stronger and more luxuriously appointed than any ship built in this country.

The dream, however, had been interrupted while the Gibbs brothers designed ships for use during World War I. They successfully reconditioned a German passenger liner into the S.S. Leviathan, used to land troops in Europe. The German vessel had been seized by the United States in New York Harbor when the country entered World War I.

In 1927, Gibbs designed the Malolo, which featured numerous watertight compartments and other safety breakthroughs which would become industry standards.

The onset of World War II further delayed Gibbs’ pursuit of his dream. In 1940, he designed a cargo ship suitable for mass production using prefabrication techniques, which reduced production from as long as four years to as little as four days, of significant value during the war years.

Finally, the wars behind him, Gibbs set about making the impossible dream come true.

“I’ve been on the ship once, and the engine room is the most intact section of the ship,” his granddaughter says. “It feels almost like a shrine to him.

“He always had this dream of building a 1,000-foot-long boat,” Susan Gibbs says. “He would lock himself in his dorm room and redesign British battleships.

“I was 5 when he died in 1967, and my first recollection of someone explaining what my grandfather had accomplished is that it didn’t impress me much. I don’t know if it was because I was a girl or what.

“As I became an adult, I gained more of an appreciation for what he accomplished. I’ve inherited letters and photos and newspaper clippings from my father, and I’m still sifting through them, but I feel a growing pride of just how significant that accomplishment was at that time.

“I’ve yet to come across any sense of doubt in any of the diaries or letters that the project wouldn’t be finished. It was clearly a struggle for him, though. The federal government was involved, and there’s this great passage in one of the letters about what all he has to go through to ‘tame the bureaucracies.’

“Clearly, this project was a herculean struggle. There were times he had to be very tough and irascible.

“I’m still reading Grandma’s diaries, and when I do, I wonder if she ever was ‘jealous’ of the ship. She describes these fabulous good times on the ship – the cocktail parties, the martinis, the famous people. And she has an obvious pride of her husband. But I wonder if she felt any jealousy because grandfather was so entirely committed to this project. He was driven to create it, and his emotional investment in it is readily apparent.

“He would be down at the dock every time she launched, and he would occasionally call her when she was out to sea. He would be up early every morning she was to arrive and drive to the vicinity of the Brooklyn Narrows just to see her come on the horizon as dawn broke.

“Grandmother said that as he got older, he would take pictures of her (the ship) to bed with him, to look at before he fell asleep. I find that a little odd that he was so smitten with her. I’ve talked to some old Navy salts about that – these rough, tough guys – and I’ve learned that is the way it is, this great emotional attachment. They knew exactly what grandfather was feeling.”

Gibbs, who serves as president of the S.S. United States Foundation, is “excited about the potential” for the ship’s future under ownership of Norwegian Cruise Lines, and “apprehensive that enough of the ship’s original personality” will be retained.

“She’s a big ship, and she’s going to need lots of restoration, so I’ve got my fingers crossed. What is amazing is how many people seem to have bumped into the Web site who either once sailed or once worked on her,” she says. “Some of these people, I think, just sort of figured she may have been scrapped long ago.

“There’s this entire generation of people out there who knew her then,” she says, “and I think she is of such value that she will easily occupy a niche and her legacy will grow.”

Gibbs was known for his “modesty” in acknowledging his role in the building of the grand ship, Susan Gibbs said. He didn’t like fanfare, deflected praise and ensured that every one else who worked on the ship got credit.

“He was a somewhat religious man, too,” Susan Gibbs says, “who was content to follow the saying that ‘by their works ye shall know them …'”

SS United States facts


In 1946, the United States Lines put the America into transatlantic service after a delay of almost six years, and it was anxious to get a “running mate” for it. Meanwhile, the federal government, impressed with the troop-carrying capabilities of ocean liners displayed during World War II, decided to finance and own a fleet of liners which it would lease out, with the provision that the ships could be recalled at any time for emergency service.

Construction began on the SS United States on Feb. 8, 1950 and, in an unprecedented construction time of just 28 months and 12 days, it was officially delivered to USL on June 20, 1952.

The ship arrived in the harbor at New York on June 23. On July 3, it set out for Le Havre, France, and Southampton, England. It arrived in France in three days, 10 hours and 42 minutes.

Here are some other facts about the liner, some of which were kept secret for years because of its military use:

  • On its maiden voyage, the ship officially averaged a speed of 40.96 mph. Later, it was disclosed that the ship could exceed a speed of 50 mph.

  • The engines produced 241,000 horsepower for the ship, which was 990.5 feet long and 101.5 feet wide, narrow enough to slip through the Panama Canal. Construction materials included more than 2,000 tons of aluminum.

  • It was designed to be “totally fireproof,” being constructed of nonflammable materials. Publicists enjoyed pointing out that the “only wood onboard were in her pianos and on the chopping block.”

  • The ship was briefly on standby during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but it was never called to troop-ship duty.

  • The advent of jumbo jets in the 1960s led to the demise of the ship. In 1969, it was docked at Newport News, Va., for an annual overhaul, but it eventually was left to sit idle. In 1973, an extensive dehumidification system was installed.

  • Ironically, the Norwegian Cruise Lines (which has purchased the ship) was interested in buying her in the late 1970s, but a clause in the ownership agreement prevented the ship from being sold to a foreign country. NCL instead purchased the idled superliner France from the French government and rechristened her the Norway, putting her to sea as the world’s longest cruise ship.

  • In 1978, the federal government accepted a bid of $5 million from Seattle-based United States Cruises Inc., which said it would return the United States to sea as the world’s first condominium-style cruise ship. The purchase fell through and, in 1992, the government seized the ship and planned to sell it at auction.

  • Fred Mayer, chairman of Commodore Cruise Lines, stepped in with partners, one of whom was a wealthy shipyard owner in Istanbul, Turkey. They planned to enter into a partnership with the Cunard cruise line, which would operate the ship upon her return to sea. In 1992, she sailed for Istanbul.

  • The ship would again be orphaned in the next four years. Cunard underwent a corporate restructuring and lost interest in the project. Meanwhile, the fireproof ship now fell prey to asbestos concerns and, before any reuse could be considered, an extensive amount of an asbestos compound would have to be removed. The expensive, arduous and lengthy process required that the ship be stripped down to her metal bulkheads.

  • In 1996, the United States set sail for Philadelphia, where plans called for the dormant Navy yard there to reopen with the task of restoring the superliner. Financing again became a stumbling block.

  • In April, 2003, Norwegian Cruise Lines purchased the ship under the umbrella of its new U.S. Flag initiative to offer “homeland” cruise itineraries sailing from Hawaii. The company is evaluating the ship to determine the extent of renovations.


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